Rock bottom is not a place you expect to visit in Game 8 of an 82-game season.
But the Montreal Canadiens, who came to Anaheim with a 1-5-1 record, hit it about as hard as possible in the first period of their 6-2 loss to the (injury-riddled) Ducks on Friday.
There was reason to believe their embarrassing performance in the opening frame might have been the best thing to have happened to them since Claude Julien took over as head coach for Michel Therrien in February of last season. This team was in desperate need of a wake-up call, and it had come at full volume.
The Canadiens proved they had heard it when they set a franchise record for most shots in a period (30) in the second, scoring two goals in the process to claw their way back into the game.
And then reality hit and they came completely undone by allowing three goals in 1:37 of the third period.
The reality is that this group can’t possibly be more fragile than it is right now, and rebuilding its confidence will take considerably longer than the 17½ minutes between periods.
It’s understandable. The Canadiens had traveled to Orange County riding what might be considered the ugliest six-game losing streak in their 108-year existence. They had allowed 25 goals and scored just eight over that stretch. Goaltender Carey Price, widely considered to be the best in the world by his peers, the league’s executives and any hockey fan with a pulse, had said after his last start that he couldn’t continue to allow an average of four goals per game if his team would be expected to win. Captain Max Pacioretty, who has five 30-goal seasons to his name and was stuck on one goal through the first seven games, had referred to himself as the worst player on the ice after the team lost 5-1 to the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday.
And, yet, it was unimaginable things would get worse for either of them or their teammates. So getting outscored 3-0 in the first 14 minutes of Friday’s game, en route to being out-shot 23-7 in the opening 20 and getting dummied in every other statistical category without so much of a whimper in response, was unpredictable—especially against a Ducks team that had lost two games in a row and come into this one without stars Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm available to them.
The Ducks looked cooked when top defenceman Cam Fowler went down clutching his knee on his second shift of the game.
But they saw vulnerable opponents on the other side and all but choked the life out of them before fans in attendance had enough time to make it through their first beers.
The Canadiens may rebound. They may just be able to extract every ounce of positivity there was to take from the response they offered in the middle frame of Friday’s game, notching the first 15 shots on net and suffocating their opponents all over the ice before getting to 30 and scoring two goals.
But even if they manage to rattle off seven wins in a row—here’s betting a toonie that they won’t—they can’t convince anyone they have what it takes to contend for a championship.
Sample size be damned. Every flaw on the Canadiens has already been exposed.
The defence, which Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (laughably) referred to in numerous pre-season interviews as better than last season’s, appears as though it was assembled to win the 2003 Stanley Cup. It’s all guts and toughness and five pairs of legs slower than they need to be to compete in today’s high-flying game.
Victor Mete, who’s as quick as a water bug, can’t make up for that. The 19-year-old rookie, who was drafted 100th overall in 2016, has been amazing. But it’s too much to ask of him.
The offence, which had produced just 11 goals in six 2017 playoff games, was downgraded as a by-product of losing the team’s best puck-moving defenceman in Andrei Markov and by forward Alexander Radulov’s departure to Dallas as an unrestricted free agent.
And Price, who’s been uncharacteristically bad, can’t solve all of that or anything else that ails the team, even if he turns it around quickly—as expected—and plays his best.
It won’t get worse than this for the Canadiens. It can’t possibly.
But even with the $8.5 million Bergevin has available to spend on improving the roster, you really have to wonder how much better it can get.